SEVEN YEARS have passed years since I stopped pursuing a career as a trumpeter to "do something else." Aspiring musicians generally avoid saying that they "quit" once they stop aspiring, preferring to say they're "doing something else." That phrase is designed to mitigate the pain, shame, and hurt that come from falling short of a goal you had worked toward for more than half your life, to lessen feeling as if you are a failure. I was 23 and had completed a year as a trumpet major at Indiana University. The one thing I excelled at, and which brought me the most pleasure, was no longer something I could focus on and hope that I would be able to make a living doing. I was not very pleasant company for some time.
I knew all the statistics going in, or enough to make an informed decision. I knew how few full-time jobs there were with orchestras, and I knew that the life of a freelancer was difficult. I knew it took a long time as a freelancer to be able to live off that money and not need a second job. I didn't care. I had a little bit of talent, I worked hard, and I had good musical sense, if not the most refined technique. I thought I could make it work.
What happened was this: in college, at Butler University, I had worked up to being principal trumpet in the orchestra by my junior year. The next year the orchestra played Pictures at an Exhibition and Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, and with some serious diligence, I played them, and played them well. It was scrappy, but it wasn't bad by anyone's estimation, and I started auditioning for graduate programs.
THE BEST one I got into was IU's—barely, but I made it. It quickly became clear that there were a pile of undergraduates who could play circles around me, but I slaved away that year and made some progress, and was generally positioning myself well. Disaster struck that December.
My teacher, Edmund Cord, had noticed that I always "set" the trumpet's mouthpiece on my lips and wrestled everything into place. Many trumpeters develop habits like this and come to rely on them; this turned out to be a somewhat deleterious one, because the way I set up cut into my endurance. He suggested just putting the mouthpiece on my lips and playing where it landed comfortably. The result was immediately better, but the muscles used in that formation needed time to build up.
The disaster was that I couldn't play for longer than five minutes at a time, and notes had a tendency to simply stop in the middle of a phrase. I would stare uncomprehendingly at the music stand; what was going on? I had once been able to go from rehearsing with a big band to rehearsing a blowout Christmas concert, and play a concert the next day, and now a simple four-measure phrase was impossible. It was devastating, and the last thing you want to go through when you are 23 and in an advanced graduate school program.
I know that I could have taken the time to relearn how to play in this new way. I also knew that graduate school was the time to be polishing your orchestral excerpts and sight-transposing skills, not building up the fundamentals of technique. The same repetitive tasks would have taken up the time of a talented 19-year old along with mine.
I wouldn't have been able to work professionally once I graduated, so, crushed, I put the trumpet in its case. Everything I had learned was useless, and I had to figure out who I was, since my identity was so tied to that instrument. If I wasn't a musician, what was I?
THAT TURNED out to be the most difficult challenge of all. I still haven't answered it satisfactorily. I didn't miss playing that much, but I missed knowing who I was, and how I fit into society. I was someone who practiced so that he could perform, and thereby bring some satisfaction to others. I made a contribution that was absolutely unique. I didn't do that anymore. I had entered the musicology program, and spent my days in class and in the library, going through the archives in the Lilly Library as I researched American popular song at the turn of the twentieth century, along with teaching myself to read German. I wrote the occasional paper. After a series of outrageous concert reviews were published in the student newspaper, I started reviewing concerts and writing for the local alternative paper.
So? I had been an avid reader since high school, and of Sports Illustrated when I was a kid, so I knew what good writing was, and I knew that H.L. Mencken had said that everyone should be able to write 500 words on any important topic of the day. Writing was a baseline accomplishment that anyone should be able to do, not something to take pride in. But music journalism was something I thought I could do well, so I kept working in that direction, and after an extremely thin period following grad school and in Chicago had passed, joined up with Time Out Chicago. I don't know about anything other than classical music, so I was lucky. (By thin I'm talking about getting by on two meals a day. I did this for a time in grad school, also.)
I NEVER got angry with my teachers or the music school administration for not adequately preparing me for life outside music school as a non-musician, like some former musicians have. Everybody's got to make a living, and theirs is training musicians, and it isn't training musicians not to be musicians. Most instructors I know understand the reality that their students aren't going to "make it" as professionals, but they wish them well and mean no harm.
I do get angry with myself, though. I often get upset that I set myself up to fail at such a young age by working toward such a lofty goal. Having one thing in life that you want more than any other is a dangerous proposition, and I'm angry that I became so focused on it. I was obsessed with the trumpet from the time I was 14 or 15, I think it's fair to say. I knew that was somewhat on the old side, but I put my head down and worked. I did everything right: I practiced a lot; I partied an indescribably small amount so I didn't get distracted; I studied the history and theory of a lot of this music. For nothing. Why would I have been so stupid to put that kind of pressure on myself? Because the payoff would have made it worth it. I'm not sure if the reward justified the risk, though, or the feelings of frustration that continue to eat away at me.
I sometimes think it would have been better had I never picked up the trumpet in order to join the sixth-grade band. I wouldn't have had to go through this awful, impersonal heartbreak, I wouldn't have had to retool my expectations of what I wanted out of life so completely, and I would probably have a wider array of employment choices. The great things I have accomplished outside of performing (interviewing Pierre Boulez and Peter Sellars, writing about Alfred Brendel) I wouldn't miss, because I would never have known they existed in the first place. That storm cloud generally passes quickly.
One friend told me that I acquired an amazing appreciation for this music. Anyone who's sat through a music-appreciation class knows what a small consolation that is. I love this music, but, almost like a romantic relationship, it has taken away as much as it's given me.
THE WORST aspect is that there is no feeling of professional accomplishment that can equal performing. It's completely different, making a favorable presentation, hitting an important deadline, or seeing a project finished. I miss joking onstage before a concert. I miss being in a group that is focused on the same goal at the same time. And I'd be unhappy if I tried to do that today, because the level of the performance would be so far below what I had envisioned for myself.
I could have written the greatest article, and maybe it would lead to a few emails. Those were and are enormously appreciated. A blog post might be judged timely by a handful of people I respect. Today, I'll help to get the Chicago Symphony's record label even farther off its feet, and with my background as a musician and and journalist attuned to the classical-recording marketplace, I'm uniquely qualified to do that. There has already been some significant success since I started. But it all pales next to performing a great piece of music. I'm disappointed that I had the greatest, most adrenaline-fueled on-the-job joy of my life when I was 22 and a college senior. It's hard to look back on that high point eight years ago and accept that it will only recede further away from the present reality. Like so many things before and after, I didn't expect it at the time.